Woods has not played since August and is currently sidelined after undergoing his third back operation in the space of 19 months at the end of October, with no timetable set for his return to action.
The 39-year-old was chosen as a vice-captain for next year’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine by US captain Davis Love, who also added Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker to his backroom staff on Wednesday alongside former Open champion Tom Lehman.
Told of the news after opening with a four-under-par 68 to sit just two shots off the lead in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, a visibly surprised McIlroy said: “I don’t know what to think about that, I really don’t. It’s great that he wants to help the US team in any way that he can, and if that’s not in a playing capacity, then as a vice-captain. Just sort of makes me think what really his health is like and how he feels like he’s going to come back from that. I’d rather see him on the course at Hazeltine but if not, at least he’ll be there and it will be a good addition for them.”
Woods turns 40 at the end of December, claimed the last of his 14 major titles in the US Open in 2008 and has figured on just one winning Ryder Cup team in seven matches, but McIlroy feels he would be an inspirational figure to some of the younger players who could make the home side next year. “I think Jordan [Spieth] and Tiger have become quite close and if you look at the likes of Justin Thomas or Daniel Berger, some of the guys that are a similar age to me or a little bit younger that grew up idolising Tiger, to have someone like him to be a part of the team will be great for them,” he said.
Paul McGinley, last year’s winning captain at Gleneagles, said he found it “strange” that Woods, Furyk and Stricker had all been appointed so far in advance.
“I really haven’t figured it out,” said the Irishman. “One of the things that came out of the taskforce was that they were going to have a succession plan in place and it seems quite clear that the Steve Strickers, Jim Furyks and Tiger Woods will be captains in the future, so maybe it’s part of that plan. However, I’m surprised that they’d done it so early. Normally in Europe we might announce one or two vice-captains well in advance, but we give everybody the best chance of making the team.”
After carding a 66 to earn a share of the lead in Dubai with fellow Englishman Andy Sullivan, Germany’s Martin Kaymer and Australian Marcus Fraser, Europe’s Ryder Cup talisman, Ian Poulter, described the appointment as a “smart move”. He added: “Why wouldn’t he want to be part of that team, whether it be playing or even vice-captain? He’s been a part of that team for so many years. Tiger’s Tiger. He creates a buzz whether he’s playing or not playing, so just his presence there would be a good thing for the team.”
But Poulter conceded: “I think his body has taken an awful lot of punishment over the last few years. He went back in for another back surgery, as we know, and that’s obviously difficult. It’s going to be difficult for him to come back from that. It’s an early announcement but it’s not a bad announcement.”
As for whether Woods could influence the result from the sidelines, with Europe seeking an eighth win in the last ten contests, Poulter added: “I’m not really sure a vice-captain will give any team an edge. I mean, he’s bringing a lot of experience, is what he is doing, and guys would respect what he’s done in the game of golf.”
McIlroy, who holed a bunker shot at the last to stay ahead of Danny Willett at the top of the projected Race to Dubai rankings, backed new European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley in his bid to see the so-called “flagship” event of the Tour, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, live up to its billing by offering more prize money than its current “unacceptable” €5 million.
“He makes a great point,” said McIlroy. “The Colonial in America has a prize fund of a million more (than Wentworth). He said to me if that’s our flagship event, that’s a bit embarrassing for the European Tour.”